November 24, 2013

Speaking Ill of the Dead

Detail of the Guanajuato mummies, Mexico. Blac...
Detail of the Guanajuato mummies, Mexico. Black and white version. Photo taken at Museo de las Momias de Guanajuato. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Social convention dictates that when someone dies, even someone who was utterly despicable in many ways, that we are supposed to wait an acceptable amount of time before publicly criticizing them. It is thought to be unseemly to appear to celebrate someone's death even if that is what we might feel like doing. Why? In part, this is likely due for the consideration of any family the deceased may have left behind. We recognize that family members may be grieving, and we have little desire to rub their faces in how awful the person they just lost really was. It probably also has something to do with our difficulty reconciling our image of ourselves as civilized with idea that we might want to celebrate someone's death. And I'd also guess that the social prohibition on speaking ill of the dead has roots in ancient superstitions, beliefs to which a large portion of humanity continues to cling (e.g., belief in spirits).

In a recent post about the passing of talk-show "psychic" Sylvia Browne, blogger Hemant Mehta (Friendly Atheist) noted that many well-known skeptics held little back in the statements they released about Browne's death. While stopping short of celebrating her death, the statements appeared to converge around one important point: Browne hurt a large number of people during her life. We might be reluctant to appear to celebrate her demise, but we have the sense that the world is a bit better without her.

Here's how Hemant framed the issue:
There’s a widely-held belief that when someone dies, you shouldn’t speak ill of them. Even if you didn’t care for someone during his life, you should only say nice things when he’s in a casket, right? If you’re invited to the funeral, maybe I’d agree, but when you’ve criticized someone’s actions and scams over the course of many years, I don’t see the point in pretending none of that matters anymore. There’s a difference between delighting in someone’s death — which, even in cases like this, rubs me the wrong way — and pointing out the awful legacy that person will leave behind.
I agree with what Hemant is saying for the most part. Celebrating someone's death rubs me the wrong way too, although I'll readily admit that this is one of those emotional responses for which I don't have a sound rational basis. And similar to Hemant, the criticism Browne has continued to receive after her death does not bother me in the least. However, I am not sure that the line between heaping criticism and scorn upon someone who has just died and celebrating - or at least appearing to celebrate - his or her death is always clear. I understand why we would want there to be a very clear distinction between the two; I'm just not sure the distinction really is that clear.

Prefacing one's postmortem criticism of Browne with disclaimers about how one is not celebrating her death are understandable, but such disclaimers do not preclude the possibility that one is actually celebrating or that one is glad to see her go. I find these disclaimers, of which I have seen many, a bit like beginning a racist joke with "This is going to sound racist, so please do not take offense." If the joke ends up being racist, we are going to take offense in spite of the disclaimer. If the criticism of Browne is sufficiently harsh, it is going to look like her demise is being celebrated no matter what sort of disclaimers we attach.

Maybe the real issue here boils down to our difficulty coming to terms with the unseemly side of our nature, our darker and more brutish impulses. We don't like to admit that we might be happy to see someone die because doing so would reflect poorly on us and because we don't want to own that part of ourselves. And yet, that part is there whether we want to acknowledge it or not. And while we may not want to delight in someone's death, this is no guarantee that we won't find some uncomfortable pleasure in it.

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